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Northland Nature: Trumpeter swans have arrived

The near-record-setting month of March brought an unexpected quick end to winter. A snowpack of nearly 2 feet rapidly shrunk right before our eyes as mild temperatures -- which mostly stayed above freezing -- allowed the waterways to open much ea...

The Swan
A swan. Submitted photo

The near-record-setting month of March brought an unexpected quick end to winter. A snowpack of nearly 2 feet rapidly shrunk right before our eyes as mild temperatures -- which mostly stayed above freezing -- allowed the waterways to open much earlier than normal. Though lakes are still holding an ice cover now in early April, the smaller ponds and swamps are devoid of such a coat, and the moving waters of rivers have been free for a couple of weeks already.

Along with the early spring, we are also experiencing a migration before the usual time. Red-winged blackbirds came back to sing at their territories on a nearby swamp on March 22 (about a week before last year's arrival) and in a nearby field at dusk, I listened to the "peent" call and twittering flight of a displaying woodcock already on March 19 (also a week early). Avian happenings in the yard included migrant flocks of juncos, tree sparrows and singing robins. With all this bird news in and near the home, I decided to look for migrant waterfowl resting on the St. Louis River.

As expected, I saw the very-common Canadian geese and mallards. Both winter about as far north as they can and are quick to arrive to these aquatic sites. While scanning the surface, I saw a few more. A pair of common mergansers swam across the open water while a small flock of goldeneyes winged upstream. And out along the edge were a few large white birds. A closer search revealed that they were visiting trumpeter swans.

April is a great time to look at the local wetlands along the St. Louis River; usually I'm able to see at least 20 kinds of geese, ducks, mergansers, cormorants, grebes and swans. (Some years, flocks of white pelicans will be seen here too.) Several on this list are big white birds: snow geese, white pelicans, trumpeter and tundra swans. Snow geese and white pelicans have white bodies but hold black tips on the wings; swans are all white. Trumpeter and tundra swans look much alike, but enough differences can be observed to differentiate between the two. Trumpeter swans are larger and they swim with their neck held up straight and have a yellow patch at the base of the black bill. Living up to their names, trumpeter swans produce a honk-like sound -- sometimes comparable to an old car horn -- while tundras have a high-pitched whooping or yodeling call.

Trumpeter swans are a relatively recent sight in the Northland. Native to Minnesota and much of the continent to the west and northwest, they were nearly wiped out during the 1800s. Reintroduced to the state, they have done well. Many now breed in the state, and a surprising number winter quite far north. In early spring, they do some scattering in small flocks or family units and it is these that we see as they rest in nearby open waters.

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Tundra swans breed in the tundra of the far north and winter on ocean estuaries, both east and west. The ones coming by here in spring are in huge flocks (often in hundreds) going from a winter at Chesapeake Bay and heading to northern Canada. These big groups are in need of open water to rest, so the St. Louis River (or any available lakes) serves them just fine. Whether trumpeter or tundra swans, the sight of such large white birds gathering in the region is a terrific spring sight.

Retired teacher Larry Weber can be reached c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

Related Topics: WILDLIFE
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